Nobody leaves a divorce unscathed, but parents can put aside differences to guide kids gently through the process
By Melissa Tucker
When parents decide to get a divorce, how to break the news to children is often the biggest concern, and Dr. Adam Benton, licensed psychologist and co-founder of Arkansas Families First, says there’s no getting around the emotional tension when it comes to having that conversation.
“Last month, I did the interview on the birds and the bees, and, in both topics, I feel like these are times where you have one sit-down conversation, and then ongoing dialogues, but it’s going to be somewhat traumatic,” he said. “It’s made to be so formal, and there’s so much emotional tension around it. But at the same time, there’s no great way to do it.”
When parents ask him how to approach that talk, he says it depends on the age of the children and what’s happening in their family.
“If kids suspect it’s coming, it’s a whole different conversation,” he said. “But if the parents haven’t said anything at all, or if the kid’s only 2 years old, maybe they don’t have to have a big discussion. There’s not a one-size-fits-all. And sometimes the kids are more aware than parents suspect.”
Occasionally parents will come to Arkansas Families First before they have the conversation, he said. “But most of the time, they come when things have blown up and aren’t going well, when there’s a lot of tension or there’s a custody battle, and the courts mandate the kids go to therapy. Or if the kids start showing behavior problems or acting out.”
Some ways to help kids going through a divorce are upholding routines and traditions, talking about feelings, or helping them visualize how their family might look in the future.
“For kids, parents represent their stability and security, and it feels like their family has just been nuked,” he said. “It feels scary to kids, so helping to provide that stability in other ways with routines and traditions or adding new routines and traditions can be helpful.”
Though they do offer therapy for children, Benton said it’s much more effective to treat the parents to help them learn how to help their kids.
“I could see a kid once a week, or I can work with a parent, and the parent can work with the kid for hours a week. We see parents or children, but it’s a much more efficient method to help the parents to be healthy and let them help the child,” he said.
And it’s best if parents seek counseling before the relationship starts rapidly deteriorating.
“One of the biggest problems we see is when parents go for counseling, it’s typically too late,” he said. “They go because it’s a last ditch effort to save the marriage. There’s so much animosity and water under the bridge.”
Many relationships end during the teenage phase because that’s the time when parents are busy and stressed and don’t make time for each other, he said. Divorces are also common among families with special needs children because the stress level is so much higher.
“It’s hard to have time together with your spouse when you’re so, so busy,” he said. “Marital satisfaction is at its lowest when you have teenagers and it goes back up during the empty nest phase.”
He says there’s less stigma around mental health these days.
“A lot of people will go to counseling on their own and marital issues can be part of their individual counseling. Kids are growing up knowing school counselors. When people feel persistently unhappy they should get help in whatever area of their lives so they can improve it. It doesn’t have to be long term or mean there’s a serious disorder or anything, and if people did that more often there would be fewer divorces.”
But whatever the reasons and however it’s approached, he says divorce is essentially a grieving process for both parents and children.
“Everyone has to grieve the loss of this image for their family and develop a new image of the future,” he said. “That process helps them adjust, and then they can feel hopeful again for what the future holds.”